Early Friday afternoon, doctors at Sutter General Hospital slipped a laser-tipped probe into 11-year-old Jack Petersen's brain and turned on the light, sizzling some of Jack's most problematic brain cells in seconds at temperatures near 130 degrees Fahrenheit.
It was the first time the relatively new technology, called Visualase, had been used to treat epilepsy in California. Doctors hoped that, if the surgery worked well, it could transform how they operate on patients with epilepsy, brain tumors and other neurological problems.
Jack's mother, Jill Petersen, simply hoped that the surgery would stop her son's frightening, debilitating seizures and the regimen of medical care that has hijacked her family.
"Cutting edge or whatever it might be, we just hope it helps him," she said.
Michael Chez, medical director of pediatric neurology at the Sutter Children's Center, learned about Visualase earlier this year and was eager to try it. The $300,000 device, made by Visualase Inc. in Houston, has been used for several years to zap tumors of the brain and prostate, but until Friday, only 14 times for epilepsy.
When a child's epilepsy doesn't improve with age or medication, doctors may use electronic monitoring to pinpoint the exact part of the brain that's sparking seizures, and if it's not in too delicate an area surgically remove it.
Typically, that means removing a section of the child's skull and physically cutting out the trouble spot. Hospital stays can last five to 12 days, Chez said. With Visualase, the surgeon drills only a 3.2-millimeter hole in the skull, and patients can potentially go home the next day.
"This is going to change the way you do brain surgery," Chez predicted last week. But to be certain, he needed to test it for himself.
Chez told the Petersens a couple of months ago that he thought the new technique could be a good match for Jack.
Jack, who attends a special-needs class at Arden Middle School, zooms around his family's Wilhaggin house despite walking with a limp. A severe infection at birth caused brain damage that left him with cerebral palsy and unbeknownst to his family until he suffered his first grand mal seizure in 2008 epilepsy.
Since then, Jack, his mother, his father Grant Petersen, and his three siblings have suffered through a parade of treatments that were almost as bad as the condition itself. They tried drugs that turned Jack into an angry "crazy person," his mother recalled.
For eight months, Jill Petersen, owner of Byuti salon in downtown Sacramento, kept her son on a high-fat diet that included straight doses of whipping cream and safflower oil. Now, under Chez's treatment, Jack's seizures are controlled with a cocktail of five drugs that total 20 pills a day. It can take 45 minutes to persuade Jack to eat his spoonful of medicine-laced applesauce in the morning.
"I have driven to school holding the spoon," Jill Petersen said. "It's like the medicine rules our life in this house."
Plus, Jack is not himself. The drugs make him moody, agitated, distractible and disoriented. He throws clothes in emotional outbursts that his 8-year-old brother Jace described as "a horror show."
At first, Jill Petersen said she and Grant were nervous about the new surgery method. But they chose it over the traditional way because it would be less invasive and afford their son a shorter recovery time.
Friday's procedure took a little more than two hours. Chez said the surgery, performed by Sam Ciricillo, medical director of the Sutter Neuroscience Institute, appeared to destroy at least 90 percent of the problem spot in Jack's brain, a front-left area about 1.7 centimeters wide and 3 centimeters long.
The actual burning took about six minutes. Jack had one stitch to show for it. A few hours after surgery, Jill Petersen said her son was awake, calm, hungry and playing with an iPad.
Chez hopes that in six months Jack will be free of both seizures and medications though time will tell. If it turns out they missed a spot, they might have to operate with Visualase again to finish the job.
That's OK with Jill Petersen.
"I feel like it's a huge turning point in his life," she said. "I'm optimistic about his years to come."